Sony A9 Review: A Defining Moment for Mirrorless Cameras

Sony A9 Review

Every once in a while a camera comes along that draws a line in the sand, redefines a segment, and marks a milestone in photography.  The first from-the-ground-up dSLR, the Nikon D1, was such a camera. Canon’s consumer-level digital Rebel was such a camera as was Canon’s 5DMKII with its breakthrough video performance.  Cameras like this don’t come along everyday, but when they do they mark a fundamental shift and a category maturity for a manufacturer.

Aimed at Sports and wedding photographers, the A9 is positioned to be a camera long-remembered by photographers as a defining moment for Sony and mirrorless cameras.   The list of specs is impressive:

  • 24 megapixel stacked full frame sensor
  • 693 phase detection autofocus points with 93% coverage
  • A shooting buffer capable of handling 241 compressed raw files or 362 JPEGs
  • 5-axis in body image stabilization
  • OLED viewfinder with 120fps refresh
  • 4K 24p full frame video

And that’s not all, the A9 has a silent electronic shutter, a highly performant autofocus system capable of 60 autofocus calculations per second, and every Sony fanboy’s favorite spec: 20 frames per second with no viewfinder blackout- making it faster than Canon’s 1Dx and Nikon’s D5.

Yet specs, however impressive they are, don’t make a camera.  I’ve had the chance to spend a good amount of time with the A9 and what follows are my impressions of using it day-in and day-out.

Dials and Controls
New Dial & Dial Lock
The first thing you’ll notice about the A9 is the addition of a two stacked dials on the left dedicated to burst mode and focus. This is a nice addition as it saves having to go through the fn options to set the burst and autofocus settings.  Both dials have a button lock you have to depress in order to change their settings.  The design works well, but I wish there was a more elegant way of locking the dials as I found the press-to-turn process a bit cumbersome.  It’s not that the implementation doesn’t work, it’s that it’s difficult to unlock and change settings without taking your eye off the viewfinder.  This is especially true of the AF selector which has a tiny push-button unlock mechanism.

Top view of the Sony A9 showing the newly added left dials for Autofocus and Burst mode.

 

AF ON and AEL Buttons
If there is one button I was happy to see it would be: AF ON.   Sure you can customize buttons on the A7 cameras to use rear AF, but you shouldn’t have to do that as it takes away from the camera’s customizability.

I personally have no use for the AEL button as I photograph everything on manual, but it is a good addition nonetheless and signals a new focus (no pun intended) on ergonomics from Sony.

While I liked the AF and AEL buttons, I did think they could have been more pronounced.   I felt they were a bit too small, and inset, and not as easy to depress or tactilely locate while looking through the viewfinder as they could be.  I also felt the AF ON button was a bit too close in proximity and tactile feel to the video recording button (I recorded a couple of nice videos when I thought I was focusing.  I also sadly managed to end a video I was recording when I thought I was focusing)  I hope Sony moves the recording button in future iterations and makes the AF button tactilely distinct.

Focus Joystick
The A9 has a joystick dedicated to setting the focus point.  This is a fantastic addition!  The joystick is exactly where it needs to be and its feel is perfect. The combination of AF ON and the focus joystick make for a much more streamlined shooting experience as you don’t have to move your fingers to all corners of the camera to set and achieve focus.  It’s awesome not to have  to hit the center dial button to move the autofocus point about as you do with the A7 line.

Back view of the Sony A9 showing the newly added AF-ON and AEL buttons and the focus point joystick

 

Usability
The Silent Shutter
The first configuration change I made with the A9 was disabling the AF beep as I hate hate hate having to hear a sound everytime the camera achieves focus.  Easy enough: go into the camera settings and turn off notifications.  With the “beep” disabled, I went to shoot, focused, depressed the shutter and….nothing.  The viewfinder didn’t blackout and I didn’t hear the shutter fire.  I had to stop and check to see if the camera actually took a photo.  That moment was a revelation!  You mean I never ever have to stop looking at my subject and, if I want it, I never have to hear a shutter?  That’s just plain awesome.  By the way, there’s a visual cue in the viewfinder indicating a frame was captured.  It’s easy to miss the first time you use the camera, but you quickly know to look for it.  Incidentally, you can enable a shutter audio sound if you want.

Menus
Sony’s menus have historically been a sore point for anyone switching from Canon or Nikon.   Sony cameras offer a lot of configurability, but their menus to date been anything but intuitive.  The A9’s menu remedies this by including a custom “My Menu” allowing you to add settings or functions you typically utilize.  This means you no longer have to hunt for the “format” menu item to clear your cards.

The Battery and Grip
I own no fewer than 5 batteries for my A7II and I always make sure they are charged before serious outings.  The batteries are small and I have to be cognizant of how much charge I have left.  For example, I always make sure I have a fresh battery to go just before sunset or sunrise shoots as the last thing I want is to miss a shot because I have to fiddle with the battery.

Fortunately, the A9’s battery is a significant step up in size and capacity from the A7 series’ W battery.  Also, Sony significantly reduced the A9’s power consumption compared to the A7RII.

The A7RII, for example, has a CIPA rating of 290 shots while the A9 clocks in at 480.  This is still significantly shorter than a 5DMKIV‘s impressive 900 images per battery through the viewfinder- though it should be noted that the 5DMKIV’s battery clocks in at 300 images using LiveView while the A9 can yield 650 images per CIPA standards.

One result of the larger battery is a wider grip.  I like the slightly larger form factor, but I’m sure there are those who disagree.  This is largely a matter of preference.  Either way, the A9 remains significantly smaller than its Canon or Nikon counterparts.

Viewfinder, Autofocus & Burst Mode
I don’t care if you shoot sloths or plain ‘ol concrete drying exclusively for your day job, nothing puts a smile on a photographer’s face like burst mode- and 20 frames per second sure does the trick!  It’s a blast hitting that shutter button, daring the A9’s buffer, and letting the camera fly.

The A9’s autofocus performance is impressive and the camera is, as Sony promises, stable throughout-  what this means is I didn’t get it to lock up on me.  Also, having no blackout in the viewfinder is fantastic as I mentioned previously.  It’s a nice-to-have when shooting slower action, but it’s a godsend when you’re trying to nail a composition during fast-action sequences.

I put the AF through its paces in three tests using a challenging subject: a hyperactive 9yr old cycling down a hill towards the camera (aka Jonah, my son).  I executed 3 separate tests using the A9 coupled to a Zeiss 24-70 f/4 lens.  The camera was set to AF-C and Lock-on AF: Flexible spot Medium.   Two of the tests were down the same hill while the 3rd was performed in an area with tree cover and spotty light in an attempt to challenge the AF system.  20 images from each sequence were placed in the galleries below.  Incidentally, I set the lens aperture to f/4 to ensure the resultant focus wasn’t due to depth of field.

AF Test 1

AF Test 2

AF Test 3

Overall the AF was solid. The keeper rate across the tests was very impressive considering the test involved a subject moving towards the camera.  I did have a few shots near the end of the sequences as Jonah moved close to the camera.  I believe this was due to the focus point shifting away from his face as he approached due to him being in close proximity.  Nonetheless, I feel comfortable wielding the A9 for its main calling: sports and action photography.

Video
This was a fun one.  I wanted to give the A9 a challenge and also use it in the wild – not in a controlled environment.  I wanted to “run and gun” with it and create a video.

Sony’s A9 setup for video with a Manfrotto monopod, shotgun mic, and headphones to monitor audio

As you might know, I’m traveling full-time across the country from Key West to Alaska over the next couple of years in an RV (I’m currently in Montana just outside of Yellowstone National Park and heading east through the summer to arrive in the northeast for the fall colors).  If you’re interested in the travel side of things, you can read more about life on the road at ChaseTheSky.com.   But I digress.  For the A9 video test,  I decided to document my wife Jenni’s first jump with SkyDive West Plains in Washington.

A bit of background on the footage: all the on-the-ground video was captured using the A9.  All in-air footage utilized a GoPro Hero 4 Black.  As it turns out, you can’t take along your own camera with a skydive crew without a significant number of jumps under your belt.  It’s also generally not advisable to drop a $4500 camera out of an airplane with someone who’s jumping out of an airplane for the first time (consider that a pro tip!)  Incidentally, Jenni and the A9 both survived the video.

Another note on the footage: I wanted to let the camera have control as I shot.  With the exception of my hitting the AF button from time-to-time, I let the camera manage video capture.  Additionally, I used a Rode on-camera shotgun mic for the audio (note: if you want to get the low-down on capturing audio, be sure to checkout my Microphone 101 post where I walk you through everything from using your earbud’s mic to a pro audio setup).

Alright, finally, the video is below.  Be sure stick around to the end for the outtake, you’ll get a kick out of it.

You’ll notice a short bit of the camera going out of focus at 1:20.  I had pressed the AF button to see what the camera would do.  As you can see, it sought to refocus.  I do think focus would have been fine had I left the camera alone.  Would it have been better for Sony to have designed the A9 to ignore my focus request?  I’ll say no.  I want to be able to focus as I want, and I’m glad I was not overridden by the camera.

You’ll also notice the camera went out of focus around 4:15 as the plane rotated off the ground.   This was my fault as I had set the focus point to the upper right hand corner of the viewfinder prior while waiting for the plane to taxi and I did not change the focus point during takeoff.  I don’t think I would have had focus issues had I used a wider focus area.  It was nice to see the A9 recover nicely and track the airplane as it moved past the camera in perfect focus.

I was also pretty impressed with the camera’s ability to focus on the two parachutes in the air against a blue sky.  I expected the camera to struggle here because the subjects were small, but I was happy with the results.

Overall on the video, and keep in mind I’m a photographer not a hardcore videographer, I was impressed with the A9‘s ability to focus during video and to handle shifts in dynamic range.  You’ll note several times during the in-car footage where the available light shifted, yet the A9 handled the changes well.

The Gestalt of it All
There is no doubt that the Sony A9 is an impressive camera.  The AF system is a solid performer even in low-light, and the high resolution no-blackout viewfinder delivers a low-friction shooting experience.

The improvements in battery life feel almost like a return to DSLR battery longevity and the new controls and menus make the camera more intuitive to use than Sony’s A7 line.

But specs, features, button placements, and the like only tell part of the story.  What really matters day-to-day is how does the camera feel.  Is it in your way?  Does it help you get the job done?  Is it easy?  Is it cumbersome?

All-in-all I’ve really enjoyed the A9 and have no hesitation recommending it- especially for wedding and sports photographers.  Yes I have quibbles with the AF ON button design and placement, but overall the camera is intuitive to use and it let’s me easily go about the business of capturing images.    You don’t have to work around it.  It works with you to let you do what you need to do.

Where to buy:
Sony A9 at B&H

Sample Images
Below are edited images created specifically for this review from a couple of nights in, and around, Seattle.

Seattle’s Space Needle at blue hour

 

Frank Gehry’s Museum of Pop Culture & The Space Needle

 

A look up at the Museum of Pop Culture

 

Alien Edifice: the Museum of Pop Culture

 

A reflection of the Space Needle at the Museum of Pop Culture

 

Snoqualmie Falls

Having 20 frames per second gives you the opportunity to capture the right moment. This, by the way, is my family Jenni’s skydive.  This is the relief after the fear shot (checkout how scared she was here)

A Swing over the Mountain

Jenni rides a swing over the edge e of the St. Ynez Mountains at the Ruins of Knapp’s Castle

I can’t adequately describe what an absolutely magical area of the St. Ynez mountains outside of Santa Barbara this is.  It starts with a walk overlooking the mountains on a dirt road to the ruins of Knapp’s Castle (a mansion abandoned after a fire in the early 20th century).  After the quarter-mile or so walk, off to the side of the mansion ruins, is this area with two rope swings.  We made it there perfectly at sunset- I couldn’t have asked for better light (timing shoots is something Jenni has been getting really awesome at recently!)

Everyone rode the swings while I did my camera thing to get this shot of Jenni swinging with abandon over the edge.

We stayed well past sunset until the clouds rolled in (we literally walked through the clouds to the top of the mountain back to car and drove down to our campsite.)

 

Vasquez Rocks

If you’ve seen Star Trek or Westworld you’ve seen these rocks.  They have been featured in Star Trek the Original Series (season 1, episode 18 “The Arena”) as well as in the 2009 film (the planet Vulcan).

More recently they were featured as a film location in episode 4 of HBO’s Westworld (“Dissonance Theory). It’s an awesome place to hike and hangout with a lot of short hikes and climbs featuring mountains in the background.

I’ve been at this location twice in the last week or so and may go there again.  There’s so much to see. I have a few more shots from here that I’ll be posting over time.

A Bridge in the Forest

It’s been a while since I’ve posted images as I’ve focused more on reviews and basically posted images on Facebook, Instagram, etc instead of here. I feel like I’ve been neglecting the blog.  Good news, I have a tons of images to post so strap in- a lot of images are on the way.

Our RV (aka battlestar) is currently in Soledad Canyon, California. Coming up are Santa Barbra, Joshua Tree and Las Vegas. So yep, more stuff coming (and that’s just the next couple of months; might even been heading to Yosemite in the fall/early summer)

While I’m in California, this image here is Paris Mountain, SC. I photographed it at the early stages of the trek way back in October. It was’t the image I thought I’d capture that day, but sometimes you just happen on a scene that’s the one.

 

Microphone 101: An introduction to capturing audio

Failure is an Option
I’ve been wanting to put together video reviews for a while, so I tried a quick test by shooting a chat about my DJI Phantom 3 Pro.  As you can see (and hear), it did not go so well.  Actually, it went significantly worse than well (arguably, it went significantly worse than bad!).  The footage itself was good, but the audio left a lot to be desired.

So, audio became a quest; I wanted to capture good audio and I was going to get to the bottom of it – one way or another. This video is the result of that quest: a brief tutorial and intro for anyone asking themselves the question: how can I record good audio for video?

What’s out, What’s in
You can flat-out forget about relying on your camera’s built-in mic: whether its on your phone, iPad or mirrorless/DSLR.  Built-in mics are designed to pickup everything and anything.  Audio, in a sense, is similar to photography.  It’s  said a good photo is more about what is left out than what is included.  The same applies to capturing audio: it’s what’s left out that makes good sound.  You only want to hear what you want to hear – not everything else in the environment.

Mics: some options
In short, you have 3 options: lavaliers, shotguns, and boom mics.

Lavaliers are what’s commonly known as clip-on mics.  They sit close to speaker’s  mouth to capture the audio.  This allows for the ambient noise to be left out (though a lavalier can be lowered on the wearer to allow more environmental sounds to be picked up).

Shotgun mics are mounted on top of the camera and are used commonly when you have multiple speakers talking directly at the camera.  In such situations, you don’t want to capture and mix audio from multiple lavaliers.  A shotgun is what you’ll go for.  Keep in mind that a shotgun mic is directional: it’ll capture what’s in front of it.  The better it is, the better it is at keeping the “cone” small.

Boom mics are basically highly directional shotguns on an extension pole (aka the boom).   Just about any mic can be a boom mic really- the boom just gets you closer to the speaker and allows you to turn the mic sensitivity down so it picks up less of the sound in the environment.  Just about every movie you’ve seen has used a boom mic for the audio.  Booms are great, but not very practical for most YouTubers as booms are typically at the higher end of the price scale- not to mention you’ll also need an assistant to hold the mic and keep it pointed at you.

Let’s not forget HandHeld mics: handhelds are great because you can be right up to the speaker and eliminate ambient sound.   They also allow you to a great deal of mobility and the ability to pickup audio from multiple speakers (i.e. they’re great for interviews).  They suffer, however, from the disadvantage of being, well, handheld!  I can never use a handheld, it would drive me insane as I am pretty animated and use my hands a lot when I speak.  You’d never hear me because the mic would be everywhere except near my mouth.

What’s In the Tutorial
Lavaliers

Shotgun Mics

Booms

I also also had a couple handhelds, most notably the Sennheiser MD-46.

Notes on the Audio
You can hear the lavaliers and shotguns in the video- be sure to check it out if you haven’t already.  My two favorite mics were the Rode SmartLav+ and the Sennhesier Clip-Mic Digital (powered by Apogee).  The Apple EarPods were a surprisingly passable option – just about everyone has a set and using them to capture audio is way better than just relying on your camera’s mic.  If you’re the “I like life hacks” type: you now have a new trick up your sleeve!

The SmartLav+and Clip-Mic Digital were pretty close.  The Sennheiser was the stronger mic, but if you’re on a budget, you can’t go wrong with the SmartLav+.

As for shotguns, the Rode VideoMicro and VideoMic Me are basically the same mic with different mounting/connection options.  They were pretty close in sound.  I did prefer the Rode VideoMic Go even though it is the largest of the three.  I also think the two other mics would benefit from a windsock (aka windscreen aka dead kitten) and would yield better audio if used with one.  The said, the nice thing about the VideoMic Me is you don’t need a mount for it – just plug it into your phone/iPod and you’re good to go.  Keep in mind you can easily use any shotgun with your phone if you use something like the iOgrapher.

iOgrapher with Mic and Light

As expected, the Rode NTG3 performed exceptionally well.  I didn’t demonstrate this in the video, but even a small turn of the mic resulted in a change in amplitude.  Be sure to correctly point the mic or your audio will peak and valley all over the place!  Incidentally, the Auray ABP-47B boompole was fantastic.  The built-in cable made connecting, and handling, the NTG3 a breeze.

And, while we’re on the subject of boompoles, the Rode Micro Boompole Pro ($99) was incrediably  light!  You barely know it’s there – especially when using it with the VideoMicro.

What should you buy
This really depends on what you’re doing.  If you’re just starting out, I’d say start with your earbuds and see if they meet your needs.  From there, you really can’t go wrong with the Rode VideoMicro (if you want to go the shotgun route).  The Clip-Mic Digital, again, would be my choice for a lavalier.

Let me know what you end up with, or just ask any questions you have below in the comments.